From aboard the Aquarius, somewhere between Sardinia and Spain, Aloys Vimard tells how the ship’s 629 migrant passengers experienced the relief of being rescued from the Mediterranean Sea — then the horror of being denied the right to land in Italy.
“One man threatened to jump into the water because he was so scared of being returned to Libya,” said Mr Vimard, a Médecins Sans Frontières project co-ordinator on the former German coastguard vessel. “He said: ‘I don’t trust you, I would rather die than go back to Libya.’ Everyone was very, very anxious.”
The Aquarius is now sailing towards an emergency safe harbour offered by Spain. But the political storm over the vessel, whipped up by a new government in Rome, shows no sign of abating.
Tension over European migration policy, which has been half-hidden since almost 2.5m people applied for asylum during the 2015-16 crisis, has burst into the open — showing it to be every bit as much an existential fear for the fate of the bloc as the eurozone’s financial crisis.
Since Matteo Salvini, Italy’s anti-immigration interior minister and leader of the far-right league, denied landing rights to the Aquarius, Italy has argued with Malta and sparred with France over the fate of its passengers. Criticism from President Emmanuel Macron sucked Rome and Paris into a diplomatic row.
In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s differences with her interior minister, Horst Seehofer, over migration policy threatened a full-blown coalition crisis. Sebastian Kurz, Austria’s chancellor, added fuel to the fire during a visit to Berlin by declaring that he, Mr Seehofer and Mr Salvini were an “axis of the willing” demanding a harder line on migration.
The disputes threaten a fragile detente over migration that has held mainly because of the steep fall in the numbers coming across the Mediterranean: they have dropped from 1m in 2015 to fewer than 40,000 this year, mainly due to a squeeze on travel via Turkey and Libya. It stokes a sense that Europe is ill-prepared for the next migration crisis— which many see as a matter of when, not if.
"I do not see any solution at this point in time. Malta cannot accept them. Spain cannot keep on accepting them," EU diplomat.
“It’s a big mess and they are all responsible for it,” said Izza Leghtas, senior advocate for Europe for Refugees International. “It just puts them to shame.”
The Aquarius’s long-suffering passengers may yet face more problems when they dock in Valencia on Sunday morning. There are worries of trouble once those rescued — more than 500 of whom have now been transferred to two Italian ships — disembark. España 2000, a far-right group, has called on members to gather on Saturday night at the port.
The Aquarius row has underscored what one diplomat brands the “Gordian knot” of Europe’s migration disputes. There is no EU authority with the power to interpret — still less enforce — where international maritime law dictates a rescue ship should dock.
“I do not see any solution at this point in time,” the diplomat said, when asked what could be done to prevent a repeat of the Aquarius tug of war. “Malta [by far the smallest EU state] cannot accept them. Spain cannot keep on accepting them.”
The Aquarius affair will intensify an already fractious debate due at an EU summit this month on long-running efforts to overhaul asylum policy.
An attempt to reform the EU’s so-called Dublin regulation, on which states are responsible for asylum applicants, seems intractable. Central and northern European states including Hungary have resisted a push from Mediterranean countries for compulsory refugee resettlement quotas.
Mr Kurz has raised the stakes by signalling that Vienna will push harsh policies when it starts its six-month term as EU president next month. Mr Kurz — who governs with the far-right Freedom party — and Lars Lokke Rasmussen, his Danish counterpart, last week raised the idea of sending failed asylum seekers to a camp in a non-EU country.
The tough rhetoric has frustrated European envoys who argue calm consideration is the only way to win a comprehensive pan-EU settlement on migration. “Unfortunately all of these interventions are pushing us away from a balanced debate,” said one diplomat. “We need to make things a bit more rational.”
Perhaps nowhere is this felt more than in Germany, where Ms Merkel has warned that a failure to solve the migrant and asylum crisis will put fundamental tenets of EU life — the free movement of people — at stake. But as her political opponents realise, her authority has been undermined by the fallout from her “open doors” policy in 2015 and 2016, when Germany let in more than 1m refugees.
The EU also faces growing pressure over its anti-migration efforts on Libya, which have been crucial to cutting arrivals in Italy. The UN Security Council last week imposed sanctions on six alleged people-traffickers including Abd al-Rahman al-Milad, a local commander in Libya’s EU-trained coastguard.
Recommended Review Non-Fiction Europe’s migrant crisis, up close and personal A UN panel of experts has accused Mr Milad’s unit of being “directly involved in the sinking of migrant boats using firearms”. The EU has said it did not train Mr Milad, but has not responded to repeated questions from the FT on whether it trained anybody under his command.
Defenders of EU policies say it has invested in efforts to give human rights training to coastguards, monitor their behaviour and improve conditions in migrant detention centres.
On the European home front, diplomats point to progress in areas such as accelerating and co-ordinating asylum procedures, and identifying safe countries of return.
But the Aquarius case has shown once again how quickly the trouble on migration in Europe can blow in — and how grave the political and human consequences can be.
“We were left adrift during 48 hours without any instructions, any idea of what would happen,” said MSF’s Mr Vimard, speaking as the ship continued its fraught voyage to Valencia. “When you see authorities put political considerations above the safety of the people, it’s really shocking.”